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1917: How Woodrow Wilson Finally Got His War

by | Apr 9, 2017

1917: How Woodrow Wilson Finally Got His War

by | Apr 9, 2017

[Editor’s Note: This is part 5 of a multi-part series.]

On April 6 — a hundred years ago —  the United States declared war on Germany.

The history of America’s entry into the Great War is complex and profound. It has intrinsic drama, no matter what one’s attitude about the rights and wrongs of U.S. participation in the war–and there have been many.

Wartime Allied propaganda had Americans believing the Germans were solely guilty, and that the conflict was a war for democracy, when the most autocratic country in Europe, Russia, was on the Allied said. American entry, of course, was a necessity.

Revisionist history in the twenties and thirties written by Barnes, Peterson, Borchard, Millis, and other American historians seemed ironclad in making the case that the United States was not “forced” to war, that American intervention led to higher death totals and a settlement that in many ways unhinged the world. In these works, Wilson’s decisions often looked misguided or plain wrong.

Yet from the late thirties, and with more momentum after World War II, American historians fell back on a positive interpretation of Wilson, the Man of Peace who was forced to War, with all the ancillary propositions that followed.

Again, from the early sixties, the New Left historians — William A. Williams, Gabriel Kolko, Gar Alperovitz, and others — resurrected much of the old revisionist critique but with a more socialist and often Marxist spin.

And a number of historians and others, especially psychologists, wrote more critical works about Wilson’s state of mind and his motives.

But the picture of the upright and moral Man of Peace struggling with the necessity of war never disappeared in a long list of biographies, above all the Wilson studies by Arthur Link.

Still, to tell the truth, the old sort of diplomatic history was abandoned a while back by academic historians, and direct issues like intervention have long since lost “relevance” within the halls of academe. It is true enough that in the many recent diplomatic studies that critique the “world systems” from a Marxist or other determinist direction, there has been some interest in the role of “capitalism” in the direction of state foreign policies. And, too, outside of the guild of academic historians, some economists, sociologists, and political scientists have been interested in detailed studies of specific episodes of international relation, and in specific questions of the of the kind suggested by Leopold von Ranke in the nineteenth century–all related to “what actually happened.” (A notable exception here is Justus Doenecke’s 2011 full-length study of Intervention.)


But the war is still relevant for a broader public. It was, after all, the primal event in the history of a terrible century. And in almost any telling of the history of World War I, American entry intensified the war and reshaped the world in ways that made it anything but safe for democracy.

In the current series of short essays, I have thrown out some general considerations and discussed some specific events. It is now time to recount briefly the dramatic last few weeks.

The forty days before American entry were tempestuous. Once the Germans announced resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare, on February 1, 1917, Wilson became increasingly bellicose, preparing bill after bill that aimed at military expenditures and “preparedness” and carrying measures of war security, even war hysteria, that anticipated wartime repression, spying, and information control.

The news of these measures found a public almost, but not quite, ready for war. The Midwest and West were largely opposed to American entry. Many of the populist remnants, and indeed the agrarian and anarchist socialists rejected participation in the war since it was a war of the kind of “interests” Wilson had long railed against. The war was extremely unpopular among Irish immigrants and their children (few of whom seemed to have love to spare for the English) and among immigrants whose national origin was in the lands of the Central Powers. Then, too, a large number of women’s associations rejected the war for a variety of reasons, as did Christian pacifists. Though many Progressives were in fact much more openly bellicose than Wilson himself, a number of Progressive intellectuals and activists opposed American intervention vehemently, including public intellectual Randolph Bourne and social theorist and activist Jane Addams.

Yet as H. C. Peterson pointed out in his massive 1930s study of the propaganda against neutrality, the national press had already begun to lay the groundwork for intervention after the British cut the transatlantic cable from Germany to the United States in August 1914. The Entente essentially controlled the bulk of war news from the beginning.

The German submarine policy resulted almost immediately in a string of torpedoed American carriers of war goods. At the same time, the famous — or infamous — Zimmermann Note chiefly served to crank up the steam for “preparedness” and war with the public and with the government itself. The note was an instruction from the Foreign Office in Berlin for the Ambassador in Mexico to approach the Mexican government about entering the war in alliance with Germany. The whole scheme was conditional on American entrance into the war. The quid pro quo for Mexico allying itself with Germany would agree to Mexico’s reconquest of “the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.” (View a copy of the original German Foreign Office draft of the Zimmermann Note, in German — for a full translation, see the World War I Document Archive.)

The British had intercepted the message somewhat earlier, saving it as a trump card. They handed it to Ambassador Page in London February 23. Wilson released the text to the press five days later. Though the United States was already threatening Germany with war, the German note was largely seen as unfair, underhanded, and evil. Since the United States had invaded Mexico twice in the previous three years, the Mexicans didn’t dismiss the Note out of hand. But after careful assessment, rejected the offer. As with other political decisions related to the war (including the reinstitution of the unrestricted submarine policy), the German record in the was not stellar. Ironically, Arthur Zimmermann, whose name we associate with the note and who was the top permanent official in the German Office, was one of the first contacts Colonel Edward House had made in Europe back in 1914, as Wilson’s personal envoy. In any case, with American ships being sunk by U-Boats, the Zimmermann note was the most important straw that broke the camel’s back in the USA.

Politically, a small remnant of anti-intervention congressmen fought a desperate battle in the last weeks before intervention. Among them, Senator Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin, a Progressive himself, was foremost. “Fighting Bob” was the leader of Senate opposition to President Wilson’s nearly complete departure from neutrality after the 1916 election. In particular, La Follette organized a coalition of Senators who opposed Wilson’s Armed Ship Bill, sent to the Senate in late February 1917. The bill proposed arming American ships carrying war goods to Europe, asserting the rights of the neutrals to sail into war zones with full rights of the sea, including the right to engage hostile ships. To La Follette and his colleagues, “The Armed Ship Bill Meant War,” and La Follette used this phrase in a position pamphlet published in late March 1917. La Follette charged that the administration tactic was to flood Congress with very large appropriations bills so close to the end of the session that Congress would never have time to deal with all of them with sufficient attention. As La Follette described it, “In the last hours of the 64th Congress, all of these bills [arrived], including finally the Armed Ship Bill, which reached Congress 63 hours before its recess and claimed sweeping discretionary power involving warlike acts.”

This small band of Senators organized a filibuster that defeated the passage of the Armed Ship Bill in early March 1917. The President, who rarely took opposition well, branded the Senators as a “little group of willful men” who, “representing no opinion but their own, have rendered the great government of the United States helpless and contemptible.” If Wilson was wrong in assessing motive and wisdom, he was right in that they were certainly in the minority. Both parties had now become war parties. Henry Cabot Lodge and other prominent Republicans demanded an immediate declaration.

From London, Ambassador Page informed Wilson that British gold reserves were nearly exhausted: “Perhaps our going to war is the only way in which our present preeminent trade position can be maintained and a panic averted.”

In the last days of March, Wilson weighed his options. His closest advisors had long since advised war. Wilson spoke with Colonel House on March 27 and asked if House thought he should address Congress and ask for a declaration or simply declare a state of war and request “the means to conduct the conflict.” House, of course, advised the non-Constitutional route. On March 29, Wilson put the whole proposition of war to the Cabinet, which unanimously supported intervention. Some of the cabinet officers hoped to limit intervention to naval and supply assistance, and some even to financial aid. Wilson departed the meeting thoughtfully, telling his Cabinet officials “I think that there is no doubt as to what your advice is. Thank you.”

In the following days, Wilson made his decision and called a joint special session of Congress for April 2. The New Jersey governor had originally been chosen by House and others in part because he was a fine orator. In the biggest speech of his life, he pulled out the stops.

America, Wilson said, had been forced to war by the German submarine campaign on civilian ships, whether armed or not. During the course of this, Germans had killed Americans. He did not mention that these American ships were sailing through a designated war zone, or that many of them were carrying supplies and armament for the Entente powers.

Wilson outlined a series of war measures to be taken immediately, including the introduction of conscription to enlarge the army to 500,000, at the same time increasing loans and subsidies to the Allies while reorganizing society for war. And he added,

“While we do these things, these deeply momentous things, let us be very clear, and make very clear to all the world what our motives and our objects are…. We are at the beginning of an age in which it will be insisted that the same standards of conduct and of responsibility for wrong done shall be observed among nations and their governments that are observed among the individual citizens of civilized states.”

In the end, he said, the United States was forced to fight:

“The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.”

No doubt by the time Wilson began his speech, most national representatives had already made up their minds. The Senate voted for the declaration on April 4. Only six voted against: La Follette, Harry Lane, George Norris, William J. Stone, Asle J. Gronna, and James K. Vardaman. Eight senators abstained. The war resolution passed in the House at three in the morning on April 6. The vote was 373 to 50.

The United States was at war.

Reprinted with permission from The Ludwig von Mises Institute.

T. Hunt Tooley

T. Hunt Tooley

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